The Changeling (1980)

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By the end of the 1970’s, and by the beginning of the 1980’s, horror cinema had a boom period of supernatural horror films. This era granted unto cinema some of the most fondly remembered horror films such as The Exorcist, The Omen, The Shining, Poltergeist, Phantasm, and Suspiria. The Changeling, however, is a supernatural horror film that  didn’t get the worldwide acclaim that these previous movies achieved even though it was released around the same era, or at least, I don’t think it did. Over the years whilst I was growing up and growing into horror movies, I had never heard of The Changeling. It was never mentioned whilst The Exorcist, The Omen, Suspiria, The Shining and Poltergeist were mentioned over and over as shining examples of the greatest that horror cinema has to offer. Those films were featured in numerous articles and TV specials such as The 100 Greatest Scary Moments, but The Changeling was never mentioned. I never saw The Changeling mentioned under any ‘cult film’ lists either and I have no idea why. This may be because the film was Canadian, or it could be the fact that the film just wasn’t as good as those other films that I’ve mentioned, despite being similar and being released around the same time.

Personally, I believe that The Changeling is as good, if not better than the films I’ve previously mentioned. The Changeling is a film that understands that to create a good horror experience, is to utilize subtlety through great story, great acting and great production. The Changeling is a slow, atmospheric, foreboding film which delivers punches of supernatural horror sparingly to create a memorably haunting experience. It’s a film that lacks the violence, gore and death found in late 1970’s, early 1980’s horror movies. Upon release the film received quite a number of accolades, albeit only in the film’s home country of Canada, and I agree with Martin Scorsese when he says that The Changeling is one of his top 11 scariest horror films of all time, but I would go further than that. In my opinion, The Changeling is the scariest horror film that I’ve ever seen.

The greatest strength of The Changeling is the film’s realistic qualities. As far as horror movies go, The Changeling is one of the most down to earth with an achingly tense, yet evolving atmosphere, and the film displays a great understanding of frightening subtlety. The film’s story is very believable for a supernatural horror movie. Throughout The Changeling, there’s no mention of evil demons or monstrous poltergeists, even the film’s title ‘The Changeling’ refers not to a supernatural spirit, but to a plot point that’s actually very clever. The main story of The Changeling is a sympathetic mystery, an emotional story about greed, vulnerability and loss which is based around a character who’s already suffered grief and loss himself. The story does it’s best to stay realistically grounded: even when the film reaches it’s shocking climax, the film never goes overboard with cheap thrills and over the top sequences, and there’s a good reason behind this. The Changeling is reportedly based on a true story: the events that occurred in The Changeling – at least up until the climax – actually happened to the film’s writer Russell Hunter during the 1960’s. Russell Hunter’s adaptation of his real life into horror cinema is to be congratulated, as it never feels like anything in the film is overly ridiculous or downright silly – a problem that many supernatural horror movies tend to have even to this day. It’s become a generic convention of supernatural horror that, by its nature, it has to ridiculous and unrealistic in order to deliver its unbelievable scares and silly thrills. With the creation of The Changeling, I believe that Russell Hunter has proven that supernatural horror movies don’t have to be ridiculous in order to try and become scary, supernatural horror movies can be scary, yet grounded in reality.

A lot of the subtle aspects of The Changeling is achieved through slow, yet dynamic cinematography, powerful sound design, fantastic writing and a commendable performance by legendary actor George C Scott: an actor most recognizable for his award winning roles in Patton and Dr. Strangelove. In The Changeling, George C Scott is as brilliant an actor as he ever was: giving a practical, empathetic, overall realistic portrayal as the film’s main protagonist, John Russell – a classical composer/University professor who moves into an old house after the loss of his wife and daughter. The character of John Russell is far from the usual horror movie stereotype, the character is a fully developed, three dimensional, intelligent character with a lot of relatable qualities. In my opinion he’s one of the most sensible characters that has ever existed in horror cinema, and his journey throughout the film is truly gripping thanks to the brilliant character development and George C Scott’s fantastic performance. The rest of the cast is to be commended as well, but there’s no disguising the fact that John Russell is the main focus of the movie, as the story is about him and his experiences, and George C Scott portrays the character perfectly.

However, the acting isn’t the greatest aspect, production-wise, the film is a triumph. The cinematography of The Changeling is truly exceptional. A lot of the film’s individual are long and slow, with smooth pans and imaginative angles. Most of the film’s intense atmosphere comes from the cinematography as the slow moving shots help build tension during scenes of great importance. This is supported by the film’s editing which perfectly matches the tone of every scene: long shots during slow scenes of mystery and character development, harder and faster edits during scenes of intense supernatural horror. To enhance the editing, The Changeling utilizes gloriously dynamic sound design which creates most of the films hauntingly chilling sequences. To support the chilling scenes, the lighting is very realistic with a lack of hard shadows or imaginative colours, allowing the film to embrace it’s realistic aspects without any distraction or confusion. Finally, the set design is the film’s greatest accomplishment: the main setting – the old house – is beautifully scenic, with a close attention to detail. Overall, The Changeling is a great example of a production team working alongside one another, with each individual department accentuating the next, and the effort that went into every single production detail is truly evident on screen. In The Changeling, there’s a lot of references to classical music, music created with an intense eye to detail, built from the ground up with thorough care and consideration, and that’s exactly how I feel about The Changeling: a film built from the ground up with thorough care, consideration, and a great eye for detail.

Throughout this blog so far I’ve covered many ‘juvenile’ horror films, films that delight in blood, gore and silly set pieces, films such as: Bad Taste, Stitches, Basket Case, Meet The Feebles, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things etc. However, The Changeling is one of the most mature horror movies that I’ve ever seen. It has an adult sensibility, a refined approach which is rarely found in horror cinema. Whilst giving a developed story with a riveting mystery, The Changeling delivers some of the most frightening horror sequences that I’ve ever witnessed. The whole film is laced with an atmosphere of dread that never goes away; even in the last few seconds of the film, the atmosphere still lingers, and even after the film has completely finished, the atmosphere doesn’t go away. The Changeling is one of my personal favorite horror films, and it’s also one of the greatest horror films I’ve ever witnessed. I urge as many people as possible to watch The Changeling, as its the film that proves that horror cinema, particularly supernatural horror cinema, can be mature and sensible without compromising it’s fear factor. It’s truly a hidden gem of horror cinema.

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